• Otter Views: One Flu Over the Nest

    Illness raised its feverish little head last week as I succumbed gracelessly to this winter’s signature flu strain. Yes, gracelessly.

    Some people do very well with illness, adopting a cheerful “Take lots of vitamin C!” attitude so relentlessly peppy the disease itself seeks remission. I admire those people, but I am not one of them. I am from the Moliere school of sickness, where illness is one of the dramatic arts. No cough is too trifling to broadcast; no sneeze too slight to escape amplification.

    Lying in my damp sick bed, one arm flung across my eyes, the other clutching a rosary, I wallow in a wheezy slough of sorrow and self-pity. Magazines, newspapers and limp handkerchiefs litter the floor. The blank TV screen faces me hopefully from across the room, but I’m too weak to operate the remote.

    In rare coherent moments, I cast my fevered thoughts back to the last time I was well. Was it weeks ago? Months? When did I last hear birds sing? Walk unaided in sunlight?

    On the night table beside me stands a fool’s pharmacopoeia of nostrums: cough drops and syrups, suppressants and inhalators, soothing minty throat lozenges, “Aspergum” chews and vitamin C tablets the size of stone money from Yap. The wastebasket nearby overflows with a poisonous popcorn of wadded nasal tissues.

    Other disease-fighting engines are near at hand: the damp cloth for the eyes, the restorative glass of orange juice, and my favorite, the thermometer. This simple device enables the sick person to validate the suspected illness by “checking the fever.” Anything over 100 is satisfactory, with readings in the 100 to 103 range particularly comforting. Care should be taken not to administer the thermometer too early in the morning, as a low reading may prompt a return to work.

    There are two schools of thought about working sick, which is something like “playing hurt” in football. One camp believes in toughing it out at work. They reason that the worker who caves in to illness and goes home burdens fellow workers with extra tasks. There’s also the implied wimp-out factor of taking sick leave. It’s there on the books, but nobody really wants to use it. We all want to be the model team player who misses zero days of work.

    The other school holds that “working sick” actually does the team more harm than good, since the sick ones who tough it out soon infect their teammates. And even if they don’t, their hacking, wheezing, blowing and sneezing foster revulsion and paranoia – neither very conducive to productivity.

    Then there is the nature of the disease itself. These various swine flus and bird flus rarely have the courtesy to take hold on a Thursday or Friday, when the victim might have the weekend to fight them off. No, they generally start clawing the back of the throat late Sunday evening, after the victim has spent a strenuous day schussing at Squaw or pouring concrete for a friend’s carport.

    Ignoring the first warning night sweats, you shower, shave, dress and drive to work on Monday, pretending you have “just a touch of cold” that will subside politely by noon. At the gym, you work out more strenuously than usual, then go jogging in the wind. No scheming little virus dare breach the mighty Maginot Line of this gluten-free body!

    The viruses love that kind of attitude. I imagine them as a sort of World War One Teutonic army. Massed by the millions in their forward trenches, they load bandoliers and fix bayonets for the coming assault. Behind the front lines, virus generals jostle over campaign maps. Their pointy protein helmets wink in the green light of the war room.

    “This imbecile thinks he has ‘just a touch’ of cold, mein Kommandant!” the intelligence colonel reports, clicking his jackboots together smartly. “Let us launch ‘Operation Flu!’”

    “Patience, mein Oberst,” the field marshal grins, his little monocle twitching with pleasure. “First ve let him go jogging in ze vind at dusk.”

    “Ja! Ja!” the generals exult. “Jogging in ze vind at dusk!”

    As you can see, in addition to fostering melodrama and absenteeism, illness may also force its victims to read too much World War One history. I have also spent feverish midnights recently plodding through the 2013 Booker Prize winner, “The Luminaries.” I’m on page 556, about two thirds of the way through.

    Set in 19th century New Zealand, the novel tracks two dozen residents of a small gold mining town on the country’s inhospitable southern tip. The climate is cold, bleak and windy, and heavy rain falls nearly every day. Despite this, nobody gets sick, or at least they haven’t up to page 556.

    It is a work of fiction.


    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 23, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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